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The Times Literary Supplement: Book Review

Min Jin Lee’s Moving Saga of a Korean Family in Japan

By Fran Bigman

In one of many moving, subtly observed scenes in Min Jin Lee’s sprawling family saga—the story of four generations over eighty years—a fourteen-year-old boy celebrates his birthday at a fancy restaurant in Yokohama, Japan, in the late 1970s. A guest comments on how lucky he is: “American private schools, millions in the bank, and a chauffeur.” The attendees are the “sons and daughters of diplomats, bankers, and wealthy expatriates from America and Europe” and the country’s most famous pop star makes a surprise appearance. Yet as the birthday boy cuts his cake—“a spectacular ice cream cake shaped like a baseball diamond”—his stepmother is upset to notice ink under his fingernails.

The boy, Solomon Baek, is not American, or European, or straightforwardly Japanese, but a Zainichi, a Korean resident of Japan. Historically, Zainichis have been consigned to second-class status; some, like Solomon’s uncle Noa, attempted to conceal their Korean ancestry and were forced to live in fear of discovery. While the situation has much improved, even today the question of whether to blend in quietly, or to fight actively against discrimination, still divides families.

The Japanese word “Zainichi” is itself controversial because it literally means “existing in Japan”. For one, this obscures the colonial exploitation of Korea; some Zainichis are descendants of Koreans brought to Japan as forced labourers. The term also implies temporary residence, even though it is used for those, like Solomon, who are born in Japan. And indeed Solomon is forced to register for his alien registration card on his fourteenth birthday. If denied, he stands to be deported to a country he’s never lived in. Every three years, he must request permission to stay in Japan. This birthday scene comes after Solomon has been fingerprinted like a criminal; he has attempted to wash the ink off, but a “shadow of the stain remained on his fingertips”.

In the eyes of many of Pachinko’s Japanese characters, Koreans—even “good Koreans”—are a stained race. Solomon’s grandmother Sunja muses, “The Japanese said that Koreans had too much anger and heat in their blood. Seeds, blood. How could you fight such hopeless ideas?” Solomon’s birthday shows both how much and how little has changed in the family since Sunja’s meagre childhood in a village at the southern tip of Korea. The novels begins with her peasant parents’ marriage shortly after 1910, when Korea was annexed by Japan—a time when Koreans were forced to take Japanese names and consider themselves subjects of the emperor. Sunja’s entanglement with two men—Hansu, the married man who seduces her, and Isak, the gentle Christian pastor she marries—sets in motion generations of struggle. No matter how much her family succeeds, they will always be too Korean for Japan, and too Japanese for Korea, which always proves impossible to return to: first as a ravaged colony, then an impoverished nation, then a divided one.

Lee employs a straightforward prose and linear structure, relying for effect on the drama of her immigrant narrative; she sweeps us along, skipping nimbly over years and into the heads of her characters. Whether they are noble and long-suffering, like Sunja, or morally compromised, like Hansu, Lee provides richly textured, sympathetic portraits. She also illuminates the difficulties faced by various Japanese characters, such as a secretly gay policeman with a disabled brother, and a teenage prostitute with AIDS, suggesting (perhaps idealistically) that these individuals, marginalized by their own society, are the most sympathetic to the Korean community.

The heart of the novel lies with Sunja, who moves with Isak to a Korean ghetto in Osaka in the 1930s, a dangerous time. In the ensuing decades she survives the imprisonment of her husband, wartime deprivation and discrimination against her two sons, Noa and Mozasu, who as both Korean and Christian are doubly disenfranchised. Hansu, now a powerful member of the yakuza—the Japanese criminal underworld—intrudes periodically into their lives as both a saviour and threat. Sunja keeps from Noa the real identity of his father, fearing, with reason, that the secret will destroy him. Mozasu prospers, however. Barred, like most Zainichis, from jobs in government or with respectable companies, he makes a career out of a popular if seedy phenomenon which explodes in the post-war period: pachinko, which gives the novel its central metaphor as well as its title.

Pachinko, often described as vertical pinball, is a way of getting around the gambling ban that still exists in Japan (legislation passed in December 2016 may now lift this). Players at pachinko parlors sit transfixed at colourful machines, firing away with tiny metal balls, apparently oblivious to the incessant clamour. (The clinking of these metal balls—“pachin pachin”—gives the game its name.) If they get lucky (and this is largely a game of luck), they collect more balls, which they can trade for cash. For Mozasu, who becomes a millionaire setting up such parlours, “life was like this game where the player could adjust the dials yet also expect the uncertainty of factors he couldn’t control.” One such factor is that he, like other owners, tinkers with them every day to set the outcomes. As in life, Mozasu’s Japanese girlfriend muses, “there could only be a few winners and a lot of losers. And yet we played on, because we had hope that we might be the lucky ones.”

The Korean characters in this novel are especially conscious of the rigged system they are set up against. Sunja’s attempts to ensure a better life for Noa backfire because he internalizes the stigma of his birth; Mozasu’s marriage prospects are marred by his “dirty” business. Even “lucky” Solomon, his son, whom he sends to college in New York, later encounters job discrimination in 1980s Japan. Yet these depredations bring the community together. Min Jin Lee has produced a beautifully realized saga of an immigrant family in a largely hostile land, trying to establish its own way of belonging.

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published: The Times Literary Supplement